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Copyright 2002 www.bbc.co.uk

[ January 23rd 2002 ]

Scarlett is a pupil at the Grey Coat Hospital comprehensive school in Westminster, London, UK. She has a refreshingly positive attitude towards technology. IT isn't just about sitting in front of a computer all day. It is used in every job from working in a shop to being a journalist.

"It isn't boring and it is involved in loads of jobs," she says matter-of-factly. She could not have said it better if the words had been put in her mouth by Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt herself. Scarlett, along with seven of her schoolmates, was spending the day at Hewitt's department as part of the Women in IT conference - being held to look at ways of enticing girls and women into technology jobs.

The girls - Year Nine pupils - were working on a project to create 3D environments for women role models like J K Rowling, Ellen McArthur and astronaut Helen Sharman. It was the first time they had worked with the software and they were clearly enjoying it. Kathyrn has an even more positive attitude to tech, claiming she is considering a career as an engineer - but not all the girls were so enthusiastic. "I'd think about doing a degree in IT but I'd rather be a model," said Lily, illustrating that the government still has some way to go to convince teenage girls that tech is more chic than geek.

Dispelling the nerdy stereotype of computing is one of the first priorities of educators and business. To this end, the DTI has launched a teen-style tech mag - Spark - to tell girls about the exciting world of technology and science. The girls from Grey Coat worked closely on the design and chose Lara Croft as the cover girl for this month's issue. Apart from Lara, though, the tech world is depressingly free of role models for young girls. Carly Fiorina may head up Hewlett-Packard but in its recent UK apprenticeship programme to recruit customer service engineers, only two out of the 22 candidates were women.

Girls just do not see technology (other perhaps than the mobile phone which is their constant companion) as relevant to their lives or an option for them. In the UK, only 10% of computing undergraduates are female, while business and computing studies attract just 30%. Gillian Lovegrove, head of computing and maths at Northumbria University, believes technology will remain the domain of men for the foreseeable future.

Making it easier to convert to a masters in computing, creating summer schools, offering taster sessions, more group-based learning and creating a culture which does not exclude women are some of the ways Ms Lovegrove believes can help universities redress the balance. More also needs to be done at school level if government and industry are to win the war of skills shortages, says Inez Ware, an Advanced Skills teacher at King Edmund School.

"Pre-school girls are technophiles, but by the end of primary school the rot is beginning to set in. Boys like results and girls like praise and the interest just isn't there for them any more," she says. Teaching boys alongside girls is a mistake she feels and this attitude seems to be reflected by the girls at the single sex Grey Coat school. Working on her virtual environment for JK Rowling, Jade is dismissive of how boys would approach the project. "If boys were here they would probably design some stupid fighting game," she says.

Ms Ware thinks the fact that girls generally get on better at school than boys and achieve better grades is actually disadvantaging their chances of getting on in information technology. "There is a complacent attitude to girls in IT and they are underachieving," she says. "Boys tend to get put into IT because it might hold their attention while girls go into history, geography and more academic subjects."

With just 5% of timetable allocation given to ICT in schools, a shortage of equipment and teachers ill-trained to teach the subject, it is little wonder girls are struggling to see the benefits of learning computing, says Ms Ware. With 1.5 million tech job vacancies across Europe and only one in five UK tech jobs filled by women, it is clear that both government and business need to act to convince girls that a career in technology can be rewarding and exciting.

Computer clubs aimed specifically at girls - with learning done with reference to music, film stars and teen mags - is one idea of the e-skills NTO (National Training Organisation), the organisation charged by government with equipping the UK with skills for the information age.

Another idea will see ambassadors from the tech industry - preferably young women that girls can identify with - going into schools to talk to pupils about their own experiences of working in the technology industry. IBM and Dell have already pledged 200 ambassadors each. It would seem that government and industry are doing their bit to convince girls that becoming a techie is as much fun as being a model, but whether the modern sophisticated teenager will buy it remains to be seen.

Scarlett may have a healthy attitude to learning computing skills but as she points out these skills can just as easily be transferred to a more glamorous job in the media. The tech industry may find that it spends its time and money training young women only for them to take their skills elsewhere.

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